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Coping during COVID-19: Nurses on the frontline

By Dr. Kathleen Winston, Dean of the College of Nursing, University of Phoenix

The emergence and reality of the coronavirus pandemic embodies the reason many nurses chose to go into their profession. Nurses are service-driven. They put themselves second to those in their care, even above their own families. Nurses are selfless for the greater good.

The demands on nurses, and all medical professionals right now, are great. They are tired, stressed and challenged. Some in smaller communities may not be seeing the impact as directly as in hot spot locations, but nurses everywhere understand the implications of COVID-19. Many are working extra shifts, seeing high-risk patients and even traveling to help provide support. And like all of us, they worry about themselves and their families. The stress can put a strain on mental health wellness.

The type of stress occurring for many nurses right now is called acute stress, which is “in the moment” stress that causes the body to have a fight-or-flight reaction. Over time, acute stress can present symptoms that mirror those of chronic or traumatic stress, which can impact the body over time. One approach that is useful during times of extreme acute stress is to identify what you can control and what you can’t control, and find coping mechanisms for aspects that are out of your hands.

What can be controlled

On a professional level, nurses are trained to follow protocols at work that are driven by science. This maintains control in our work environments, within the scope of best practices. On a personal level, it’s very important that nurses also focus on aspects related to both physical and mental health wellness within their own environments to ensure the immense pressure of the job doesn’t knock their lives off balance. The basics of eating well, getting in some exercise and trying to rest as much as possible are even more important when the body is under stress, helping to maintain control over these aspects as well.

What can’t be controlled

Nurses, just as the rest of us, are riding this pandemic out day by day. There is only so much that is known about COVID-19 at this point, and the truth is, medical professionals can’t control any of it—they respond based on science and current best practices. And also like the rest of us, nurses are dealing with overall uncertainty personally—their children are no longer in school or daycare, friends or loved ones may be in self-quarantine or self-isolation. Nurses still need to purchase groceries, prepare meals and take care of their families. On top of that, they are also on the frontlines, staring the medical reality of the coronavirus right in the face and carrying the extra burden of thinking about coming into contact directly with COVID-19 on a regular basis.

Nurses need to be especially intentional in finding coping strategies to process what can’t be controlled, both professionally and personally. Here are some of the ways nurses can seek support for their overall wellness during this time:

  • Look to your employer’s wellness programs. Check with human resources or directly with available assistance programs, which may include access to counselors, psychologists or psychiatrists, as well as broad support for overall wellness initiatives.
  • Look to your colleagues. Don’t forget the importance of talking to those within your peer group of nurses-to-nurses with a sisterhood/brotherhood of understanding. No one quite relates to what you’re going through unless they are going through it as well.
  • Look to your medical professional. If your stress and worry are impacting your ability to function, reach out to your doctor. If you don’t have a regular provider, reach out to your direct supervisor for direction on how to find one within your organization’s processes.
  • Try to maintain a sense of humor. These are very serious times, but it’s okay to still find levity and humor in life. In fact, laughing is a great stress reliever. Always be mindful of the setting, though. Humor in professional spaces may not be appropriate.
  • Do what makes you happy. Pre-coronavirus, what did you like to do to calm your mind? Journaling, drawing, talking with friends and exercising are ways many people release pent up stress and also find enjoyment. While time may be limited, think about trying something new, like sudoku or jigsaw puzzles.
  • Reach out. If you feel uncomfortable talking with peers or loved ones, there are national and local crisis numbers, including health departments, that are available.

All of these tips relate beyond COVID-19. Remember that even when things return to normal, even if they are a new kind of normal, hang on to the positive efforts you’ve made toward overall wellness. They will serve you in good times as well as stressful times.